Those Mother Sauces

As a brief respite from the garbage fire that is our world, I decided to play with actual fire and take a class on making “mother sauces.” I had never heard this phrase, nor did I research what it meant before the class, because I. Got. Distracted.

Anyway. Our instructor was actually giddy to see us, since this was his first non-Zoom class in almost three years. “I teach cooking and knife sharpening,” he said. “And occasionally some leather working.”

How does one teach knife sharpening virtually? (Very carefully! I’ll see myself out).

Over the course of the class, our instructor dropped in pieces of his life story—along with being a professional chef and restaurateur, he also does contracting and is a licensed paramedic. So we were in good hands.

He began by explaining that mother sauces are a staple of French cuisine, and are the first thing taught in culinary schools. After all, “sauces enhance good food, and hide bad food” and once you have a good sauce down, you can really get creative.

And don’t forget that before refrigeration, foods spoiled faster (especially meat), so for the vast majority of culinary history, sauce has been essential to mask, ahem, more ripe flavors.

The five mother sauces can be modified to make an infinite number of daughter sauces, which the French call petites sauces (AWW). Four of the five sauces are essentially a roux (butter and flour) mixed with one variable ingredient. There are flow charts that explain all of this.

Our instructor was thankfully less of a flow chart guy and more of a “Let me drop some historical facts in with these ingredients.” The mother sauces were officially born in 1651, when a French chef known as La Varenne wrote a cookbook that is essentially the forefather (or foreMOTHER) of modern French cuisine. This dude was a revolutionary. He broke with centuries of medieval traditions and explained how to enhance the natural flavors of meat and vegetables via fresh ingredients, careful preparation, and use of local herbs, rather than choking everything with exotic and expensive foreign spices, as was the way of life in the Middle Ages (imagine. how bad. EVERYONE smelled).

The man invented bisque! BISQUE!!

He also codified recipes for stocks, reductions, and the most well-known sauces (replacing the traditional bread crumbs and lard with flour and butter, nice one), introduced recipes with vegetables that were new to France, such as asparagus and artichokes, and even invented tying herbs in a little bouquet to simmer with a sauce. WHICH I DID.

How his face isn’t on the French flag, I’ll never know. Well, they had that revolution.

The sauces weren’t officially branded until the 1800s, thanks to that rascal Napoleon. Sort of. According to our instructor, “Napoleon was known for not giving an eff about food,” but he knew that state dinners were an essential element of diplomacy, so he bought a château as a party palace, hired an up and coming chef and challenged him to go one year without repeating any recipes. Marie Antoine Carême was his name, and he became the father of haute cuisine as well as the first celebrity chef, cooking for royalty and dignitaries all over Europe for the rest of his life.

In his spare time, he wrote a cookbook called “The Art of French Cuisine in the 19th Century” where he classified four sauces as grandes sauces and five as petites sauces.

I picture him as looking like the chef from Ratatouille even though he definitely did not look like that.

But Carême did make chef’s hats (toques) fashionable and was the first chef to make dining a theatrical experience, by printing menus and organizing the dishes into courses rather than the traditional fashion of bringing everything out at once.

As a wise man once said, “We’re not just eating, we’re dining, and dining is pageantry!”

But once the Industrial Revolution rolled around, the elaborate and time-consuming style of Carême needed a makeover. Another chef named Auguste Escoffier figured out how simplify and modernize Carême’s techniques while cooking at the finest hotels in Europe. Escoffier’s cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire, IS STILL IN PRINT and it’s a required textbook for culinary schools. Our instructor brought his copy with him!

Escoffier streamlined Carême’s sauce classification into our five mother sauces, cementing them as the bases for all sauces heretofore and in perpetuity, throughout the known universe and until the end of time.

“We’re still making things this way because this one guy said all the way back in 1903 that this is how we should make them,” said our instructor. “So here we go!”

Our first sauce was Espagnole, a brown sauce that pairs best with beef. The story behind this sauce is that Louis XIV married the daughter of the King of Spain, and she insisted that her chef make a proper beef sauce with all the new spices her kingdom had been taking from the New World. It caught on and became known as the Spanish sauce—Espagnole.

Espagnole is the most complicated of the sauces—roux with beef stock, then a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions, then tomato purée and some pepper and garlic. If a sauce pairs well with steak, it’s a daughter sauce of Espagnole—or Mama herself.

Since our tomato sauce recipe was is the true French recipe for Sauce Tomate, it didn’t include any Italian herbs like you would expect to find in a tomato sauce, just a roux and tomatoes, carrot and onion, with a little salt and sugar at the end.

“Italians do it better,” said our instructor, but I LOVED this sauce. It hit just the right balance of savory and sweet. And it was super easy.

I have never eaten Hollandaise Sauce. It’s weird. I guess people eat it with eggs? You’re not supposed to refrigerate it? It also falls apart VERY easily, as I found out. Fortunately the instructor was able to literally whip my sauce back into shape (I can’t help it, that brought me such joy).

“Food is theater!” he proclaimed, with a flourish of the whisk.

Hollandaise is the hot young mom of the mother sauces. She’s not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom. And she might be Dutch—although it’s been known as “Dutch Sauce” since the 1500s, no one knows the exact connection between this sauce and the Netherlands. It may have been brought to France by Huguenots returning from exile in Holland, or it may have been invented by La Varenne, or maybe it was bequeathed upon us by aliens who beamed away into the stars after showing us how to emulsify butter with eggs, who effing knows.

It can be frozen? How? I did not do well in chemistry.

We ran out of time before we could make Béchamel and Velouté sauce but here’s what I found out about them:

If you can make a Béchamel, you can make mac and cheese, lasagna, moussaka, and a million other delicious things (challenge accepted). Béchamel’s daughters are the white sauces—the creamy and cheesy sauces—since the variable ingredient mixed with the roux is milk. You could have a lot of fun adding different cheeses or dairy products (again, challenge accepted).

Velouté Sauce is essentially the same recipe as Béchamel, but the variable ingredient is a chicken stock (or veggie or fish stock), so you end up with more of a gravy (velouté means “velvety” like the consistency of a gravy, no?). Velouté’s daughters include a lot of gravies but really anything that pairs well with chicken, fish, or vegetables. It’s incredibly versatile but under-appreciated because it’s not showy about it, like Melanie Lynskey.

Velouté even has a granddaughter sauce—Poulette sauce. Thicken a Velouté with egg yolks and cream and you’ve made Allemande sauce, a delicate sauce that pairs well with almost anything, but then add mushrooms and parsley and you have Poulette sauce, which is perfect for poultry dishes.

Armed with all this knowledge and missing the top layer of skin on my nose (I was over that stove for a WHILE), I stumbled out into the sunlight, ready to conquer the culinary world . . . after a nap, of course.

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